During Tuesday’s (12/9/08) American Society of Safety Engineers’ (ASSE) Web cast, former Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) John Henshaw and former Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Dr. John Howard discusses the future of the OSHA. Other topics included the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970, the standards’ setting process, and the economic impact on workplace safety.
“With this economic downturn, I believe we must do more to reach out to small and medium size businesses to show them the value of developing and implementing workplace safety programs,” Henshaw said. “We need to sell it to them. Right now, most large and smart companies already know the huge benefits and cost savings of developing and implementing occupational safety, health, and environmental programs into the workplace, but we, including OSHA, really need to reach out and show them the benefits of investing in safety—the value it brings and the increased efficiency.”
As for the future of OSHA and the OSH Act, Henshaw noted that due to the economy, he doesn’t see any major changes ahead for OSHA with the new administration.
“I do not believe, even though I feel it is necessary, that we will see any changes to OSHA due to the economy in the near future,” Henshaw said. “However, I do believe changes need to be made in the area of standards development and generating more participation by businesses—we all need to work together.”
“The workplace has changed over the years,” Howard added. “Unlike the 1970s and the years before and after, people aren’t with the same company for decades any longer; many work as consultants and contractors. So as the work relationship changes, so too does the nature of the work. Maybe the OSH Act should be revisited and updated to reflect these changes.
“We need to be creative,” Howard continued. “For instance, the new head of OSHA should meet with the head of Commerce in the next administration and say ‘you need to incorporate an overall workplace safety, health, and environmental program for the proposed new infrastructure programs the President has called for,’ this includes all the new highway and bridge construction projects. Start there and show them how. Also, look at many state OSHA programs, like the one in California, where they often take a hybrid approach when addressing workplace hazards.”
Henshaw said OSHA has been doing an excellent job. The federal OSHA has 2200 employees. “OSHA is not ineffective; it could be more effective if there were fewer boundaries prohibiting OSHA from setting up standards—such as court decisions and more,” Henshaw said. “OSHA can’t write a standard for every risk.”
When asked about the possibility of an ergonomic standard returning—such as in the Clinton Administration—Henshaw and Howard both agreed that it was unlikely.
“We need to do more to educate employers and workers on ergonomics,” Howard, former head of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, CAL/OSHA, said. “Coming from California, the only state with an ergonomic program, I believe something needs to be done. One third of all workplace injuries are due to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). OSHA could do more in the area of education – provide employers with tools they can use to enable them to afford to address the risks to reduce this injury.”
Both agreed that Congress can help play a role in outlining the priorities for OSHA, an agency charged with helping keep America’s workers safe—injury and illness free—with very limited resources.